Today, we begin a series of essays on the Jewish prophets, Jesus and the prophetic voice in our world today. This initial essay provides an introduction to some of the Jewish prophets during a five-hundred-year period of Jewish history.

Following the reigns of Kings Saul, David and Solomon, Israel split into two separate kingdoms (931 BCE). Israel, or the northern kingdom, had Samaria as its capital and contained present-day areas of Israel and Palestine, as well as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Judah, or the southern kingdom, had Jerusalem as its capital and contained present-day areas of Israel and Palestine. Initially, both kingdoms enjoyed great prosperity. However, with prosperity came oppression of the poor, idolatrous worship and temporal alliances with foreign powers that left many of the elite comfortable, but the remainder of the Jewish people and their Canaanite neighbors in servitude first to Assyria and later to Babylon in the north, and to Egypt in the south.

From the tenth to the sixth centuries BCE, prophets arose in both kingdoms to warn the Jewish people of God’s coming wrath for their failure to maintain covenant relationship with Yahweh, that is, to faithfully observe Mosaic Law. Their voices went unheeded and destruction followed. Israel was overrun by Assyria in 721 BCE. Judah and the temple in Jerusalem were destroyed by Babylon in 686 BCE. In both cases, the Jewish people were led off into captivity in the land of the victors. Throughout these years, the prophets continued to plead for their people’s return to Yahweh so they might avoid further punishment. However, they eventually consoled them predicting that God would one-day lead them back to the land of their ancestors where they would thrive again.

The Talmud, a collection of writings of Jewish law and tradition, mentions 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses. These included Amos and Hosea in the northern kingdom, and Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah in the southern kingdom. Despite their common complaints, each spoke from his own distinct personality, admonishing the Jewish people for their failure to treat others as God had treated them during their Exodus from Egypt and for their many betrayals of Yahweh. Their voices remain timeless and their message perhaps no better stated than the words of the prophet Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah in the eighth century BCE, who reminded the Jewish people what God was asking of them.

You have been told what is good and what the Lord requires of you, only to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Mic 6:8)

Abraham Heschel, a Jewish rabbi and theologian, has provided a modern view of the Jewish prophets in his two-volume study, The Prophets.[1] He describes them as reluctant, even overpowered, recipients of a divine call to be messengers to, and counselors on behalf of, the Jewish people. Chosen by God and then rejected by their people, each had a unique temperament and character as they navigated two distinct planes of existence with profound loneliness: one, a transcendental nearness to God; the other, a hypersensitivity to societal injustice.

Compelled by their experience of divine inspiration, the prophets transmitted the mysterious yet engaging presence of God within history, one that revealed constant care and intimate concern for Israel’s redemption. Their gift was not only to bring God’s voice to Israel, but more importantly God’s pathos,[2] an emotional response of profound sorrow followed by seething rage at Israel’s refusal to live covenant relationship with Yahweh and to offer to others the love and compassion God had bestowed upon them. The prophets made clear that while few were guilty of serious transgressions against Yahweh, Israel’s indifference to the plight of the most vulnerable of society made all responsible. For this reason, they delivered God’s words of severe chastisement and a warning of the punishment that would soon be theirs.

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. (Ex 22:21-24)

However, time after time, the prophets’ denunciation of Israel was followed by God’s compassion and offer of redemption. God’s wrath would last but a moment in history; God’s love would endure forever. God would not forsake the Jewish people but restore them to covenant relationship at a time of God’s choosing.

O people in Zion who dwell in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry; when he hears it, he will answer you. And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, and your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying: This is the way, walk in it … In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness, the eyes of the blind shall see … Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. (Is 30:19-21; 29:18; 35:5-6)[3]

Each of the Jewish prophets spoke from a specific historical context but their message was essentially the same: repent and return to covenant relationship with Yahweh. The historical context from which these prophets arose will be the subject of the next essay.

[1] A. Heschel, The Prophets, An Introduction, (Harper & Row: New York, NY, 1969), vols. I and II.

[2] Ibid., vol. II, 5, 263. Heschel states, “the divine pathos is not an absolute force which exists regardless of man, something ultimate or eternal. It is rather a reaction to human history, an attitude called forth by man’s conduct; a response, not a cause. Man is in a sense an agent, not only the recipient. It is within his power to evoke either the pathos of love or the pathos of anger.”

[3] Ibid., vol. I, 194.